The Album List: #56 The Teardrop Explodes “Kilimanjaro”

What’s black and white and sitting on an album cover? The gremlins in Julian Cope’s brain.

This band has oddball lyrics, horns that make the Chi-Lites envious, and a sense of time and place that make them endearing. They are clearly Liverpudlian 1980s.  They cannot be from anywhere else in history.

I mean, they are very 1980s. The album released at the cusp of the decade, is full of odd keyboard touches, sharp drums, muddled guitars, and a heavy bass mix. And the horn section.

Lord, such magnificent horns.

Julian Cope, the lead singer, primary songwriter,  and bassist of this wayward band of merry men, was once in a band with fellow Liverpudlian legends Ian McCulloch and Paul Wylie. The Welsh-born Cope always came across as a bit of an odd duck. He continues to release music thirty years after his heyday, with increasingly weird records, but some genuine brilliant songs ( “World Shut You Mouth”, “Jelly Pop Perky Jean”, “Out Of My Mind on Dope and Speed”). He is also an acclaimed author and an early blogger. He is a unique mind, and I love him on multiple levels. But the memory of my first listen of Kilimanjaro‘s “Treason” thrill me unlike anything else he has done. The psychedelic post punk vibe of the music  makes me think of the best of both genres- the playful poetics of lyrics, the big impact moments of choruses, and the underlying ability to create pretty melodies whilst surrounding it with noise.

The sunshine musical sounds often betrayed some darker lyrical content, a precursor to the Smiths in that regard. I mean, songs with titles like “Treason”, “Went Crazy”, and “Ha Ha I’m Drowning” can’t possibly have happy endings, right? And they don’t. Cope, God bless him, was zany but smart. He sharply wrote about being a poisoned child, deaths like Howard Hughes, bad love affairs, and being a fantasist in a world that derides fantasy in everyday life.  He appears to be a happy man, but in the drug drenched songs of this album , Cope seems to be drowning under the expectations. The story goes that U2 and Duran Duran, two bands that seem to have nothing in common but are really quite similar if you think about it, were both afraid of the immediately popular Teardrop Explodes. The overwhelming success of non-album track “Reward” forced followup printings to add the track. “Reward” really is one of the greatest songs ever written. I love the opening line so much- when I first heard it, I knew I would follow Julian Cope until he finally snapped. And I did. “Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news.”

Cope is very different from my other crazy druggy heroes like Syd and Skip and Roky. First off, Cope has never become so unhinged to require hospitalization. Second, Cope is less insane than just massively eccentric. The other three make me sad because I wish I knew where they could have  gone if they hadn’t been so tragic. Cope got to keep going, and was magnificent for another ten years before he became insufferable as a musician, but still a quirky interview and a really good writer about antiquities. I miss his desire to produce lovely sixties inspired pop music.  Rumour is he still does write songs like that- a Guardian interview has him saying last year he wrote one inspired by the sound of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away, Renee”.

But unlike contemporaries U2, I don’t see the band writing grand anthems that fill stadiums- I only see them progressing further down the weird road. And they weren’t as video savvy as Duran Duran, and the MTV age would have probably turned them into massive one hit wonders in the U.S. As it was, the album barely made a dent in the U.S. charts, topping out at 156 in Billboard. None of Kilimanjaro‘s singles charted in the U.S.

How this album ended up accidentally in my eleven year old hands I’ll never know. But I am forever grateful.



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